Jack the Ripper: Still at large and dangerous

July 11, 1999|By Elsbeth Bothe | By Elsbeth Bothe,Special to the Sun

"The Bell Tower: The Mystery of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved," by Robert Graysmith. Regnery. 552 pages. $24.95.

Who was the fiend who over a few weeks in the fall of 1888 stalked prostitutes of tawdry east-end London, leaving at least five with throats slit ear-to-ear, four skillfully disemboweled, unsullied by sex, missing no more of value than kidneys and wombs-- and in one case a heart?

Contemporary clues were few. Letters, many written by a self-proclaimed "Jack the Ripper," were likely hoaxes, including the package, possibly linked to a victim, containing half a kidney with a message: "tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise." Witnesses conflicted, several describing a "foreigner," euphemistic where anti-Semitism was rampant.

No matter that time has stolen any possibility that Jack may be brought back alive. The search goes on in ever-widening scope, now encompassing more than 65 prospects, including Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, and his friend and tutor, James Stephen. There is the fake diary of James Maybrick, whose wife, Florence, was wrongly convicted of poisoning him. In this wonderland, even Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, has been eruditely implicated on the basis of anagrams.

Soon after the Ripper stopped, a lookalike killing occurred in New Jersey. Combined with the notion that America is hospitable to those of his ilk, many "Ripperologists" are convinced their man spent time on these shores -- as did Severin Klosowski, aka George Chapman, and Neill Cream, both suspects executed in England for killing other women.

Now, Robert Graysmith seeks to trump the list with the name of the Reverend John Charles "Jack" Gibson, pastor of San Francisco's Emanuel Baptist Church, where on April 13, 1895, the bodies of two missing young women -- one in the eerie church belltower-- were located in Ripper-like condition.

This is not the first time Graysmith has laid claim to "solving" a true crime. "Zodiac," his 1986 book purporting to identify a mysterious San Francisco multiple murderer of the late 1960s, has sometimes been called a novel.

"The Bell Tower" would also be better presented as a piece of quixotic historical fiction. Offered as truth, Graysmith's disregard of facts and logic destroys the book's literary merits and diminishes the fascinating stories the author recounts well.

To score his hard point, Graysmith needs to prove not only that Pastor Jack was the Ripper but that he committed the somewhat similar murders for which his parishoner, Theo Durrant, went to the gallows. In real life, the case against Durrant lacked nothing short of a confession. He dallied with both victims, was observed at critical times by more than a dozen witnesses, had ready access to the church, was sick and exhausted as from hauling a body to the belfry, and suggested incredible alibis and explanations -- especially for possessing a unique ferry ticket from one victim's purse.

Durrant would have made the more likely Ripper candidate. The problem is that he never went abroad and was only 16 when the Ripper, described as a man of around 30, was going about his London business. Pastor Jack at age 27 might have concealed blood beneath a clerical cloak and collar hiding two nasty scars on a neck supporting a head that was in London at the targeted time. That's about it. The mystery of Jack the Ripper finally solved? Indeed!

Elsbeth Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying capital cases. She does occasionally still sit on the bench. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10.

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